In a world that seems to never stop changing, it used to be that the single-family dairy farm offered a bastion of security from the volatility of rest of the world. However, with dairy farms getting larger and breeding programs becoming genetic organizations, it raises the question, is the typical dairy farm dying?”
There once was a time where a 30 cow-milking herd could produce enough milk to cover the bills and run a solid breeding program that would sell high quality young stock to pay for life’s extras. I don’t see that today. However, I do see one or two other significant things that are happening.
Genetic Sales are Drying Up
New technologies such as IVF and sexed semen and tools such as genomics have created an abundance of top genetics available. This has caused a drastic reduction in the demand for mid-level cattle. Gone are those sales of $20,000 and $30,000 for a nice pedigreed 2 yr. old that might win the state or local show. That used to be the money that, for many breeders, paid for the kids’ education or purchased the new truck.
Today’s genetic marketplace now has a go big or go home mentality. You either have a cow or heifer at the top of the list, or you might as well not bother. While there are some programs that have found their breeding niche, such as polled or Red carriers, for the most part, the strong pedigreed, maybe not top index, cow families are now finding it hard to get the much-needed return on investment that is required to run their breeding programs.
With the increase in the amount of money these top animals are demanding, there has also been an increase in what I like to call “Genetic Companies.” No longer are individual dairy breeders flushing a few cows to increase the genetics of their own herd and then selling some breeding stock to help pay the bills. This end of the business is now handled by conglomerates or even corporations complete with marketing and genetics staff. They are run with total focus on the bottom line and much greater resources than the average breeder can compete with.
But wait! With all this change, money, and growth, where is the dead part of the dairy industry?
The Next Generation Is Not Staying Home
Maybe it’s the cost of entry or maybe it’s that the lifestyle does not suit many of today’s youth but more and more it seems like these highly talented young people are heading elsewhere to apply their talents. As the average dairy farm has had to grow in numbers it has also meant that the cost to start or take over such an operation has gotten very costly. What other industry, relies on the next generation for survival? If you can answer this question, you will know what the family farm needs to do to survive too!
The typical new dairy operation is no longer 30-40 head milking herd, but rather your 100+ plus dairy operation, here the name of the game is operating efficiency and profitability. This is a much-needed change. Having said that, it is not so easy for many operations to go from a lifestyle choice to a company. It also has a huge impact on the next generation who are considering entering into dairy farming and taking on the necessary debt.
As the world has gone through a credit crisis, getting financing to start your dairy operation has gotten harder and harder. For many talented and hardworking youth, their paths have been drawn to other industries where they can apply their efforts with more financial reward and less risk.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
If you asked if the stereotypical dairy farm is dead? My answer would be a resounding, “Absolutely yes!” As I watch many of the breeders I idolized growing up who focused on breeding generation after generation of foundation cattle now enter their retirement age, and their children are not there to take over the family operation, it makes me wonder where the future is?
The answer I am finding is, dairy farming is now not simply “big business” but, more accurately, “bigger business.” Through technology we are seeing production operations that have grown to sizes I could have never imagined. Add to this, the more recent dramatic changes in genetics programs and dairy-farming 21st century style, looks very different from it did 20 or 30 years ago. Is all this change bad? No, in reality change is good. The key piece is that the dairy farmers of tomorrow must keep the passion for working with and breeding great cattle, and we must find a way to keep the next generation involved. With that one piece from the past, the industry we all know and love has a very bright future. From the science of insemination, to machine and robotic milking to genetic analysis we never dreamed of, the dairy farm is not only surviving but thriving!